Whether you’re writing a short story or a novel, a good plot is a non-negotiable element. You don’t want your readers to struggle to connect the dots or to find the thread of the story. You want them to be able to follow along without confusion or frustration, and to have a satisfying reading experience. This is where story outlines come in. Writing a story outline is a great way to make sure that your story is structured effectively.
Define the genre
Identify the broad genre that you’re writing in right away. This helps you write your novel in a way that’s appropriate to its market — so if you’re writing middle grade fiction, the book should sound and feel appropriate, whereas a science fiction novel must meet a different standard. Naturally, genre novel outlines will have very different structures from those of literary fiction novels — they should be in tune with the expectations readers will bring to them.
Whether you’re writing a children’s novel, a science fiction or dystopian story, historical romance, or fantasy epic, the ideas in your book should be presented in a way that’s familiar to readers in the genre in which you write — but, as with many other things in writing, authors should always be smarter than the average reader. You’ll need to know and adhere to genre conventions, while setting up your own fresh, unique world.
Create a cheat-sheet
When you’re working on your story outline, the first thing you should do is buy a notebook and a few different-colored pens. You’ll be writing a lot of stuff down, and organizing it will make your job a lot easier. Print out the essential parts of your story from your drafting work into the beginning of the notebook. Use different colors to distinguish between different types of information. Color-code your information as much as possible. If you find it difficult to use colors or markers, create a cheat sheet by creating a Microsoft Word or Google Document outlining your novel. Save this doc to your computer, and then, in the notes section at the bottom of your document, write out everything you know about your novel in clear, abbreviations that you can always refer back to when planning your novel.
A document like this will be important when outlining your novel, as you’ll be able to work from a lot of notes without feeling intimidated. If you ever read a novel and are struck by how strange and convoluted it was, you can bet the author didn’t have a document like this to work from. So, your first milestone is to give yourself a cheat sheet. Work your way back through all the notes and drafts you’ve written, pull out all the parts that are essential to the story, and combine them into a flexible document that you can always go back to. Then, you can start the actual outline.
Create a story in phases
Different phases of your story reflect different ways of writing. The first phase sets up the epic plot of the story within the larger world of the novel, especially the ‘normal world’ in which the action transpires. This gives context to the characters as the setting comes into play.
Then, the second phase deals with twists and turns in the story line. This phase gathers momentum and further expounds the world while building up the character’s emotional journeys.
The third phase is about the denouement of the story. Once the twists are introduced, the characters take charge. They overcome the challenges that keep them apart and address their problems. This phase pulls everything that the novel is built on and combines them in a cohesive manner to deliver an impactful ending. This also takes place at the end of a short story, but their expanse might also be limited to what the protagonist and their challenges are.
Finish scene list or chapter list
Begin by thinking about the point of your story. What does your protagonist need to learn? Is there an external goal or task they need to accomplish? What narrative tool do you want them to develop? What kind of issues or problems do you want your characters to grapple with? Are there details about this world or time period that you want to clarify? Are there things about this character’s past that are only hinted at and need to be fully revealed? Write down five bullet points on sticky notes and lay them out next to each other on your desk or a wall. This will become your basic plot, so make sure you lay out an action arc that will be compelling to your reader. Think about this as though someone has given you no background information about your story and character except what you type on the word processor in front of you. What would you want to tell them?
Start developing your plot
Once you have a general list of scenes and information, you can start to order them. If you’re writing a shorter novel, you can use index cards with your scenes written on them and lay them out in the order you prefer. If your novel is long, you can use a string and stick it around the wall, saying where certain scenes belong. This will allow you to move scenes as you please, and will look prettier than your string. As you order and reorder the scenes, you’ll start to see how the story is going to fit together, and you can adjust it by mixing up the order of a few scenes. Again, you want to juggle the order of scenes so that the story construction remains tight. Over time, you’ll hone in on the storyline which provides the best combination of scenes, and build the arching storyline so it unfolds as effectively as possible.
Fill in some details about what happens within each scene. You’ve already named and placed the scenes, now you need to decide where the beginning of each scene takes place, and where it leads to. In doing so, you’ll be focusing on the movement of the plot, which is essential in any novel. Likewise, you need to include more about the characters at the start of their important scenes. Think about their goals, what they want, and what obstacles they will face. If you’re struggling to come up with ideas for your characters, you won’t be able to write the scenes strongly. In addition, as people and plot progress through each scene, look for cues and foreshadowing to places where you can turn the story into something new and unexpected. Paying attention to the flow and themes of how each scene progresses will help engage the reader as the plot unfolds.
Establish unity by defining your protagonist’s desire
If you’ve decided on writing a character-focused narrative, be sure to know who your true protagonist is. Without a protagonist that the reader cares about, your book will never work. Defining your protagonist’s desire is the cornerstone of your story. It’s the itch she needs to scratch, the mountain he needs to climb, the enemy he needs to defeat. Some of these will go into your story in the background, without ever being explicitly stated. The specific desire you eventually base your story on is totally fine. In fact, the specifics of your protagonist’s desire may change over the course of writing your book — and that’s fine! You can always go back to this step if you decide your story needs to be a little more clear. Just be sure to go back to it regularly. If you feel like you can’t settle on a primary action clearly at this point, at least figure out a main obstacle.
Know your last scene
As you write, scenes are going to start spilling out of you in no particular order, and that’s fine at first. Some authors will tell you to just dive into the text, getting the words on the page, and stop analyzing too closely.
It’s true that there are only a handful of different types of scenes you’ll need to write in order to tell a cohesive story, but each scene must have a place in your structure and it’s best you know what that place is from the start.
Know what the last scene of your story is supposed to be, and which part of your outline that last line is supposed to be written on. When you inevitably fall behind schedule and you’re trying to catch up, knowing just how many words to go gets a lot easier if you know how far along you are.
Besides that, keeping track of your ending scenes will help you visualize the whole structure, and firm up any ideas you have about where you should be putting twists and subplots. Whether you’re planning a fresh start with a breakneck-paced epic or close your doors on an intimate romance, remembering the final line will keep you from losing sight of what it is you’re trying to achieve.
Write your story outline
Sticking with the outline will certainly make the writing process easier — even if it’s just a set of bullet points, it will feel good to have the structure in front of your eyes, and to have at least some of your story’s details in place before you begin writing. Take the pressure off of yourself to make everything perfect at the start and just have some fun writing.
The most important thing to remember when it comes to writing an outline is that it’s supposed to be flexible. It’s a plan for the road you want to travel, not the travel itself. That means you’ll need to be prepared to change the structure when your story takes a “slight” detour from what you originally had in mind. You’ll find that a story outline increases your confidence, focus, and creativity as a storyteller, and helps you make better, more effective decisions in the future.
In short, if you want to write a story, write a story outline. It’s one of the steps you need to take — but it’s also one of the most effective in terms of helping you get started—and keep going. So technique is important — but so is persistence.
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